As Orwell famously wrote, “break any [writing] rule sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Barbarous is a cute exaggeration, but what it really means depends on who’s reading. Always keep the audience in mind, whether you write or translate. Say you’re translating a text by Julius Caesar for a Germanic audience – here you might want to call the Romans “barbarians” and the Germans “civilized,” even if the text has it the other way around.
I strongly advise against writing only for your customer. Customers often don’t know what’s good for them. Ok, Julius might feel betrayed and order that you be thrown to the lions, but you could plead that your political correctness prevented a rebellion, saving him thousands of sestertii. Translation is about making decisions, and decisions always involve risks – and don’t we all love working with people who use their brains?
I heard a great example in a talk by a writing teacher at UChicago. One writing rule you often hear is never to use the passive: “The dog chased the cat.” is better than “The cat was chased by the dog.”
But it totally depends on a) whether the story is about the dog or the cat; and b) whom the reader cares more about. If your reader cares about the cat, put the cat first.
Always challenge yourself to seek the purpose of your translation. Also think about whether the author might have used the passive to make a point. So in the end Orwell might have meant that you gotta know the rules to break the rules. Nothing’s as barbarous as a writer who doesn’t care about those they’re writing for.
And as always, dear valued audience, I appreciate your comments in all flavors and sizes!